Basically, (science fiction) is a developed oxymoron, a realistic irreality, with humanized nonhumans, this-worldly Other Worlds, and so forth. Which means that it is—potentially—the space of a potent estrangement…
- Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979)
So, I thought, you are neither black nor white.
You are neither male nor female.
And you are that most ambiguous of citizens, the writer.
There was something at once very satisfying and very sad, placing myself at this pivotal suspension. It seemed, in the park at dawn, a kind of revelation – a kind of center, formed of a play of ambiguities, from which I might move in any direction.
- Samuel R. Delany, The Motion of Light in Water (1988)
“Life on Mars?”
Lately, my three-year-old drops the topic of Mortality into conversation as casually as if he were asking about the weather.
In the grocery store: “How do you die gently?”
On the way to daycare drop-off: “Is it light when we die? Or dark?”
At the dinner table:
Him: “I think I don’t really like to try new things.”
Me, imagining his answer will be something like ‘green beans’ or ‘soccer class’: “Like what?”
Him: “Like dying.”
Death is not the only conversational curveball in our household these days. He disrupts gender norms with equal abandon.
As when, sitting naked on the toilet before bath-time, he blurted out the following desire in one breathless rush:
“I wish my name were Sophie* and that I could wear dresses and do ballet and be a girl turtle.”**
Before I could respond, his attention had shifted. He soon became deeply immersed in pouring water out of a plastic measuring cup on repeat. We cuddled together in the chair after bath, read Frog and Toad, sang songs. The nighttime routine resumed.
Here’s the thing. These off-hand comments often unsettle me. My impulse, especially when they come at inopportune or unexpected moments, is to hurry past them. It takes deliberate effort to “turn and face the strange,” as the musician David Bowie once put it.***
We often frame children’s observations about the world in ways that cute-ify them in order to dismiss them (“Kids say the darndest things!”). In so doing, we might miss the strange, disorienting power of their words. Conversations with kids can take us deep into unexamined emotional terrain; they can disrupt our routines and our world views.
These glimpses into the curious, questioning minds of young children feel at times like alien encounters, unmooring us from the familiar.
They can be, in other words, queer.****
When his daughter Iva was born in 1974, the science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany was living abroad in London. He was married to his high school girlfriend, the poet Marilyn Hacker. They’d grown up together in New York City in the 1950s and had wed in the early 1960s upon discovering that Hacker was pregnant.*****
He was also gay.
Hacker and Delany would separate a year later; they divorced in 1980. But that first year of Iva’s life, Delany was the primary caregiver, a writer and stay-at-home dad. He would casually take his ten-month-old baby to business lunches with editors at a nearby café. His descriptions of that time, and of his parenting role, conjure up images of hipster Brooklyn circa the 2010s, not London in the mid-1970s.
While I’ve written at length about the struggle to do creative work while parenting, Delany and Hacker’s relationship raises a different topic altogether: the creativity involved in becoming a parent in the first place, while also pushing up against the boundaries of social convention. Closeted in one sense, they were liberated in another to reimagine those limited, earthbound terms like monogamy, marriage, family.
“Oh You Pretty Things”
I’ve been wanting to include more fathers in this space devoted to caregiving and creativity. But, in my forays into the past, fathers have been hard to track down, their parenting stories and struggles occluded by professional accomplishments.
For instance, in the Big, Important interviews I came across with Delany, in places like The Paris Review, Delany would bring up his daughter Iva in conversation only to have the interviewer immediately drop the thread.
In contrast, Marilyn Hacker, who came out as lesbian after she and Delany separated in the mid-1970s, wrote gorgeous poems about her relationship with their daughter. Through her semi-autobiographical, confessional work, she makes visible her experiences as a queer mother.
Delany’s parenting story was harder to unearth. What I’ve written before, about the invisibility of black mothers’ experiences in history, goes one-hundred-fold for stories of black fatherhood, let alone black, queer fatherhood.
I did track down one clue, in a science-fiction zine from the mid-1970s called Khatru. In 1974, Khatru’s editor Jeffrey Smith invited several prominent SF authors to participate in a series of exchanges on women in science fiction. Samuel R. Delany, along with James Tiptree Jr., were initially invited to contribute “the man’s point of view” on the Woman Question in SF.
As we would later discover, James Tiptree Jr. was the literary pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon. And, at the time of this symposium, Delany was a gay dad married to a lesbian poet. “The man’s point of view,” at least in the pages of Khatru, had a decidedly Queer Eye.
When Delany took his turn in the symposium, conducted in round-robin form over mail, he focused his contribution around writing and parenting. He wrote a great deal about the imbalances he’d observed in his wife Hacker’s experiences with her career, writing, and child-rearing (admittedly, his essay today reads a little bit like mansplaining).
He also discussed his shared caregiving responsibilities, and asked the symposium: “Do you gaze into your child’s eyes? Do you recognize its voice?”
Delany wanted to assert that the spark of connection between parent and child is not solely the domain of mothers. That the craving for a baby’s scent, its warmth, its smile of recognition can reach deep into a father’s bones.
Despite finding that hint in Khatru magazine, I wanted more. Delaney’s memoir did not oblige, ending as it does several years before Iva’s birth.
So, I searched for clues in Delany’s science fiction.
In 1984’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, there’s plenty of Delany’s trademark intellectualism coupled with sexual explicitness. At the core of the book is a love (or lust?) story between Rat Korga, the sole survivor of a destroyed planet, and his “perfect erotic object,” an intergalactic ambassador named Marq Dyeth.
Among the many things Delany is up to in the novel, he is also making gender trouble.****** Take, for instance, Delany’s reconfiguring of pronouns, which leaves the reader questioning their image of any given character:
“She” is the standard pronoun for any sentient being, and “woman” is the standard term for a person. “He” is the pronoun for someone you desire. “Man” is an obsolete poetic word. “Mother” is a role anyone can choose if they are parenting.
Delany suggests that we consider mothering as a role one can slip in and out of, regardless of one’s gender. It is less a fixed identity than an act of nurturing. In questioning what is ‘natural’ in regard to sex and gender, Delany also questions other social arrangements, including who raises kids, and how.
Stars in My Pocket re-imagines family as consisting of cross-species, non-biological units. Marq Dyeth, for one, belongs to a boisterous household that includes multiple adoptive parents, both human and Evelmi (the latter being the many-tongued, many-legged, many-sexed original inhabitants of the planet Velm).
Part of the novel’s dizzying world building (or rather worlds-building, since the book’s scope involves approximately 6,000 colonized planets) is this conflict between two forms of social organization: the Family and the Sygn. The capital-F Family proselytizes the nuclear family as the ideal human social unit. The Sygn, in contrast, encourages more diverse, inter-species experiments in family, community, kinship.
You don’t need to be a queer writer of science fiction to observe that science fiction can have a queering effect. The genre opens us up to alternative realities, other worlds. It makes visible the inequities and biases within the reader’s own dominant culture. It makes the familiar, unfamiliar. This is what the science-fiction scholar Darko Suvin, in an attempt to give legitimacy and heft to an often-lampooned genre, is getting at when he refers to science-fiction’s potential for “estrangement.”
Of course, it’s possible that I’m just blinded by my love of the genre into over-emphasizing its radical, norm-defying potential. There is plenty of SF that’s just little green men and ray guns. And there are authors celebrated within the canon who have deeply troubling, retrograde views.
But for adept, thoughtful practitioners like Delany, science fiction has the power to upend everything we know, or think we know, about gender, race, sexuality, social norms. Including the contours of modern parenthood.
Sol and I recently attended a live taping of the podcast LeVar Burton Reads. Burton read us a story called “Asymmetries,” in which the protagonist mysteriously doubles in the wake of her divorce. The two versions of the woman initially meet as companionate equals and become roommates. But one soon grows stronger, bigger, as she tests out her newfound independence, while the other self, clinging to the ex-husband’s memory, dwindles into near oblivion. This darkly humorous story blurred the line between the fantastic and the figurative.
In the Q&A that followed, the author, a local writer named Kendra Fortmeyer, informed the audience that her writing mantra is “Follow the Weird.” (Perhaps a riff on our city motto, “Keep Austin Weird”?)
Fortmeyer advised aspiring writers to embrace the ideas their inner critics might promptly reject as too dark, too wild, too much. If the Inner Critic bristles, faints, or quickly retreats into the privacy of a bathroom stall and locks the door, THAT is the sign you are on the right track. That you should go deeper into your Inner Weird.
“Follow the Weird” should be my parenting mantra as well. I need to slow down rather than speed past those moments that provoke discomfort, challenge my assumptions, or probe a wound. To boldly follow my kid into the farthest, most imaginative reaches of the mind. There is truth and tenderness there. Beauty, growth, and … new worlds.
*The pseudonym of my child’s best friend.
**I relay this anecdote not to comment on what it might mean or not mean about my child’s still-in-process gender identity, but just to show how it was revealing of my own mindset. (P.S. My kid is really into turtles right now.)
***Bowie’s synthesis of science-fiction and queerness, particularly in the form of his gender-bending star-man alter ego Ziggy Stardust, is probably why his music has been the soundtrack in my head while writing this post.
****I’m using “queer” not in a slangy or derogatory way, but rather to refer to a more theoretical/academic concept. I like this relatively accessible definition of ‘queer’ in the second sense: “Queerness, the theorists will tell you, means an assault on normativity: a defiance of cultural codes about how to look, talk, love, live, dream, aspire.”
*****The pregnancy, however, ended in miscarriage.